Paul Beckermann is the narrator of this tale as he looks back on his life to his early years at the Bauhaus School in Weimar which he registered at as a pupil in 1922. First we should say he is created as one of a group of six fictional students who are placed in the genuine school, with genuine staff and teachers, with the evolving politics of both the area and the then Germany – the post-war economic crash and the rise of Nazism and Hitler taking control of Germany with all the subsequent tropes, truths and crises of history. Bauhaus will move to Dessau, then Stieglitz near Berlin, before being finally closed. Teachers not astute enough to run will end in the camps.
The six pupils – from various places, the lads young (and lucky) enough to have avoided military service of the First War. All are interested in working in art but choose this highly unconventional place to study. They mix and are trained and influenced by some extremely creative and talented (albeit misogynistic) teachers. The novel will meld the impact of this together with the friendships of the six. Paul, a painter (not necessarily a valued thing in the creative setting of Bauhaus), Walter Koenig, Jeno, Kaspar, Irmi and Charlotte. Kaspar and Irmi become a couple and break away from Bauhaus the earliest. Peter will always be obsessed with Charlotte who will be interested initially in Jeno before living with Peter. She – forced into the female “role” of weaving will still be working and evolving the longest at the Bauhaus in Stieglitz as the School is finally destroyed. Walter is seemingly lacking the creativity of the others, and is sullen and difficult, more of an outsider. Gay, with a largely hidden interest in Peter, he will have an affair with Jeno (upsetting Charlotte) before moving onto a number of local Nazis – increasingly rising to power.
The novel will, therefore, meld the art, the politics and the torrid passions, loves and jealousies of the six as relationships grow, fade, evolve and collapse over the years. Bauhaus and its values are seen as an increasing challenge to the political right, which means being there is increasingly dangerous – and with Walter’s links to leading Nazis the personal risk is potentially greater still.
Without acting as a “spoiler” all one can add is that a key theme will be whether the six will recognise the dangers of the political situation – you might ask, why should they when so few did? They move on into their working lives, with the challenges to remain as artists in a failing economy – an issue for any artist at any time. Do they try and achieve their dreams or do they compromise? As the country lurches into extreme politics and then war what will the impact be on the six recognising that artists would come to be regarded as suspicious and potentially traitorous by the regime? Will they avoid the risks? Will the good aspects of their old friendships outweigh the personal competitiveness of their relationships and their artistic differences – to offer support that might keep the others safe as life becomes more dangerous?
First, it is important to say that an understanding of the politics of Bauhaus art and the political situation in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s makes it much easier to appreciate the depth of this novel and the subtle nuances of the developing situation and the possible implications. Nonetheless, Wood’s key skill is to create a group of young, largely self-focused people – some not really very pleasant or admirable – and to foster an interest in continuing to read about them and the developing story.
It is a very interesting novel in terms of what it says about art, history and politics. It raises important questions too as to personal responsibility and the damage one can do by what ones does – or does not do – to, or for, others in your life. Well worth a read.
Hilary White 5/4
The Hiding Game by Naomi Wood
Picador 9781509892785 hbk Jul 2019